KAUAI, HAWAII — Suicide is considered by many a taboo topic, but when it’s the leading cause of death for people ages 15-74 in your state, as is the case in Hawaii, it’s time to start the conversation about prevention.
That’s according to Gina Kaulukukui, executive director at Life’s Bridges, an organization established on Kauai in 2007 that provides bereavement services, information and support for people dealing with death.
“Our task force responds to every single suicide on this island,” Kaulukukui said. “So we see it firsthand and we talk with the suicide survivors, the family and friends, and we see how it affects the community.”
Since January, there have been 10 completed suicides on the island. Last year, there were 13.
“Statewide, 12.8 percent of high school students have thought about or attempted suicide,” Kaulukukui said. “That puts us first in the nation for having our youth at risk for suicide.”
Kaulukukui explained that a tough economy, paired with not having the necessary coping skills to handle life’s problems, are major contributing factors in the state’s suicide rate.
“The same is true for Kauai,” Kaulukukui said. “Young families are having to pay $900 for a studio and they’re working low-income jobs and they can’t make ends meet, so they get in that dark place.”
In families where both parents are working to put food on the table, it isn’t just the parents that suffer — kids can be neglected because there simply isn’t enough time for parents to spend with them. Because of that, kids aren’t learning basic coping and problem solving skills.
“Mom and Dad get home from work and there might be some time that you’re together as a family, but it isn’t the same as it was generations ago,” Kaulukukui said. “Parents aren’t teaching their kids these basic coping skills because they simply aren’t there.”
Kaulukukui pairs those factors with the increased pressures on people, particularly kids in school, to conform to certain standards and to find a niche within society.
“It goes back to coping and reliance and being who you are unapologetically,” Kaulukukui said. “Kids have to wear certain clothes and be into certain things to be accepted, and everybody gets put into categories.”
The prevalence of social media has also turned the tides for Kauai’s youth, according to Kaulukukui, and is a factor in suicides not only in Hawaii, but nationwide.
“It’s very isolating,” Kaulukukui said. “Kids spend so much time online and they’re just focused on their iPad, or phone, or whatever and they’re not making those social connections in real life.”
Interactions on the Internet give people the ability to bully each other incessantly. Many folks, especially kids, don’t always realize the impact of the words they release onto the internet
“Nothing is sacred anymore, and really being on social media is just an escape anyway. It’s not real life,” Kaulukukui said. “Of course, it isn’t just cyberbullying that will push someone to suicide. It’s a combination and culmination of a lot of things, but it’s a factor.”
Kaulukukui said one way to prevent suicide is to teach people to be resilient and confident. Jim Jung, co-chair of the Interfaith Roundtable of Kauai, said that teaching self-love can be a great way to curb suicide as well.
“If people start feeling good about themselves, they won’t be inclined to take their own lives and it’ll pull them out of a depression,” Jung said. “We need to respect each other and we need to know how to learn, share and serve.”
He said he spent some time a few years ago as a counselor on a suicide hotline in Oahu. He had many late-night conversations during that time with people contemplating suicide.
“We would teach them that life is very precious, but it’s also very temporary,” Jung said. “What’s going on in their life right now isn’t going to last forever.”
Providing opportunities is also a way to help people having an emotional crisis, he said.
“You have to make yourself aware that you are important, to yourself and to others, that there are others who need you and care about you,” Jung said. “You have value.”
Recognizing the signs
When people are in an emotional crisis, they’re always putting off signals, Kaulukukui said, and the best way to prevent suicide is to be able to read those signals and then take the right steps.
“Some of the big signals are if the person is making statements like ‘Life sucks’ or ‘I wish it would all end,’” Kaulukukui said. “Most of the time we just brush those off, but the best thing to do is sit them down and ask them if they are thinking about suicide.”
The question can be awkward. Mental health in general is an issue that doesn’t get much table time in coffeeshop chatter, but Kaulukukui says that straight- forward question can save lives.
“If they’re not thinking about suicide, they’ll roll their eyes a dozen times and say you’re being insensitive,” Kaulukukui said, “but if they are thinking about suicide, you could be the only person that’s asked them about it and you could help them.”
Other signs to keep an eye out for are a change in eating or sleeping patterns, someone who is giving away personal belongings, or if they’re withdrawing from activities they once loved.
“If you have somebody that is really depressed and all the sudden they’re happy, and life is glorious, and it’s a complete turnaround, that is a huge warning sign,” Kaulukukui said. “It’s a huge risk factor, because they’ve already made the decision to end their life.”
Once you’ve seen those warning signs, call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Three-hour classes are available free of charge at Life’s Bridges to learn warning signs and strategies to help those contemplating suicide.
Starting the conversation
Kaulukukui said the best way to prevent suicide is to get the conversation going in the community about mental health in general.
“Our brain is part of our body and mental health is really a chemical imbalance that’s treated with meds, no different than our pancreas acting up with diabetes and being treated with insulin,” Kaulukukui said. “But because we place such a stigma on mental health and mental health issues, people are afraid to seek help.”
Accepting mental health as a part of health and wellness instead of keeping it under wraps on the sidelines is essential for a solution, and providing training tools is Kaulukukui’s way of mainstreaming mental health conversations.
“We have to help people understand mental illness and not be afraid to talk about it,” Kaulukukui said. “I think that stigma is one of the biggest obstacles that we face.”
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published on November 8, 2015. Photo taken for The Garden Island Newspaper Nov. 2015 and all photos by Jessica Else.